Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Save Our Surf and its primary organizer, John M. Kelly Jr., organized against the overdevelopment of Hawai‘i’s shorelines. Over a generation later, residents and visitors to Hawai‘i have a bit more paradise because of this band of surfing kids and their charismatic leader.
For decades, Dillingham Company, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the young territory developed and altered the landscape of Hawai‘i against the backdrop of tragic cultural loss. The immense changes Honolulu underwent throughout the 20th century rivals that of any Asian tiger metropolis in recent history; the dredging of land and sea, the pouring of concrete over the land, a superhighway. By the early ’70s, even the slacker local kids born of the baby boom, who ditched school to surf, saw a whole way of life threatened by the unmitigated approach of business and military interests.
Ed Greevy, who has photographed “the movement” in Hawaii for every major publication in the state, moved to Hawaii permanently in 1967, after years in New York. He was a good friend of Kelly, and though he is 70 years old now, he remembers the events from that movement in vivid detail.
How did you Meet John?
I moved back for good in 1967 with my first wife. In 1970, I got back into photography after just working at the airport for Pan Am checking folks in. I’ll refer to what I observed and was a part of.
I got written to by Doug Frisk in 1970, Doug was the editor for Surfing magazine, they were getting interested in environmental work as places were being effected all over, places like Dana Point, Malibu. He asked me, “Ever heard of the SOS? Could you check it out for us and take pictures?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but the next day I was at a camera store in Waikiki that isn’t there anymore, and I saw a poster, this handmade thing, telling me about the next SOS meeting at Black Point.
I was in my early 30s, John and Marion were in their 50s by then. Marion was a good surfer as well, and I know the daughters loved the water too. I met them in their home, a real unique place, you just gotta see it. I just went to one of the regular meetings, which happened every Wednesday. Everybody there was in their teens or early 20s, a lot of high school kids. They were planning the first big event of the organization.
There was a place he carved out of the basement for the big printing press. He was real organized, I remember everything having its place, all the little nuts and bolts in clear glass jars with lines on them. He would try and go to the commercial printing presses, and they would look at his posters and say, “I can’t print this.” So he only did that once or twice and paid too much before he figured out he needed his own press. Somebody donated an old offset lithograph press. He took it apart and put it back together in the basement.
It wasn’t his father’s?
No, he got it second-hand from someone else. It’s this big machine. He used to say, “The only free press is the one you own.”
They were planning this big event at the capitol. It was in two or three months, all these kids in the living room. There was maybe 20 of them, plus the girls running around the house that first meeting. I went too. One of the kids was a treasurer, he stands up and says, “OK we spent $8 for this, $12 for that, and we got a little under $10 now.” I thought this is crazy, they want to do this big thing with all these people and they got less than 10 bucks. But none of them were disenchanted by the lack of cash; they weren’t even worried about it! Really struck me how confident they were. Most of the kids were middle class, took the bus there. That energy was just mind boggling, it was crazy.
Tell me about “the formula.” Kelly sort of synthesized Marxism in his own organizing strategy, right?
Well, he thought that having your own press, along with the people power, was the only way to really get the word out. He had a formula: leaflets handed out individually, 25:1 was the ratio, meaning that for every 25 leaflets you hand out, you’ll get one person to show up. So, like everything, he did the math. He figured he needed 200 people to make a scene, so, he knew how much paper he needed to get and how much he needed the kids to get involved. He had a formula for all kinds of stuff.
In 1970, the City and County didn’t have a main sewage treatment plant. Mililani had one, but that was private. They were setting up the community out there and it wasn’t for everybody else. The only thing they had was a pipe that was two miles off of Sand Island that dumped raw, untreated sewage directly into the ocean. Kids would surf around Sand Island, or even Waikiki during kona winds, and all kinds of stuff was popping up. They closed down Waikiki beach. That made national news, Condoms and all kinds of muck in the water, people getting sick.
The kids – John helped a little – but it was mainly the kids, about 15 of them, they went out and started researching waste treatment facilities. I was at that first meeting, and a few of them made a presentation on the difference between this type of facility and that, and what the city’s options could be. They weren’t even old enough to vote yet, but they were already planning on lobbying the legislature for a new facility.
They were also fighting the widening of Kuhio beach in Waikiki. I mean, they’re planning on doing it now, but it was a big thing then. City was saying that there was not too many people in the water anyways, and it’s more important to have people on the beach. The kids, with John helping out, proved that wrong. They sat there from sun up to sun down and counted. They did this months on end. Sure in the middle of the day with all the tourists on the beach it looks like you need more beach, but if you’re out there at dawn, everybody there is in the water. They proved to the city with charts and stuff that it wasn’t a good idea. A lot of these kids took off school so they could count people! That’s how they stopped the beach widening.
What was that first demonstration like?
It was huge. Nobody had ever seen anything like that. The capitol was only, what, a few years old, and there had never been a big demonstration there. SOS got from what I can remember almost three thousand people there, mostly kids. Session wasn’t in yet, and I guess everybody upstairs got freaked out and locked their doors. The kids wanted their signatures on this beach widening and treatment facility stuff.
Mike Moriarty was the emcee, and when he heard they couldn’t get anybody to listen to them – he was on the mic – he said, “On the count of 3, we need to make as much noise, jump up and down so they hear us. 1, 2, 3, Aghhhh!!!” So for a few minutes it was pretty intense, all kinds of hooting and hollering. Security, I think the sheriffs came up and said, “Hey, the folks downstairs in the basement think the wall are gonna crack.” Life of the Land was getting organized around the same time, so they were part of this too.The media really sucked it up.
Tell me about John a little more.
He was an only child. His father moved the family here when he was 3, and built that home at Black Point, which was then the country. His dad was the illustrator for the Star-Bulletin, and all that art he did was really into the culture. There were a lot of Hawaiian families still living traditional back then at Black Point, around the caves. John learned about the ocean mainly from them.
When he was in the Navy, they were shooting torpedoes at Kaho‘olawe, waiting for them to hit the rocks and blow up. A lot of times they wouldn’t, so they’d send a hard hat guy down there to tie a rope and haul it back onboard and see what happened. Those guys apparently didn’t want to do it. Said it was too dangerous. John jumped in and freedived it. I think he got some big award for it later.
How’d he get political?
It was Marion. She grew up here, and he was crazy about her. She was doing work with the ILWU – she was Jack Hall’s secretary there for a while. I think she said, “If you’re gonna keep hangin’ around, then you’d better read these books.” And it was something political, it moved him in that direction. They moved away to New York, where they both went to Juilliard. He was into choral direction, that was his original passion. Colleen was born in New York, I think. This surf thing didn’t come until later. He was the choral director at Palama Settlement, when he got interested in nuclear disarmament. There was this big conference in Japan that he wanted to go to. Palama Settlement said, if you go, we’ll fire you. But he went anyways, and they laid him off. After that he worked at UPW.
Tell me about Waiahole / Waikane. What do you think John would think of his legacy?
That’s part of the legacy I guess. It certainly goes beyond surfing. Farmers in Waiahole, you know, they were showing up to city council meetings and pulling the red book out of their shirt pockets and giving speeches. These older and middle-aged Japanese guys were doing it, not just the students. It was real shocking to see at the time. Students you expected to be radical I guess. They were telling people about Mao’s good book.
Ariyoshi ended up having to buy the valley. It was peaceful, non-violent protest, there was at least 1,000 people living there at the time. There were some rumors out there that I think set the stage. The “syndicate,” as they called it back then, they were threatening to blow up the Likelike tunnel, and the H3 before it got under way if they took over the valley. Some older valley activists said that to me. But the whole state knew what was going on.
They practiced corralling the cops when they would show up. There was a bell that would sound, and everybody knew what to do. By the way the bell sounded, they would know where to line up in the valley. The younger ones were practicing to link up arm-in-arm to encircle the police, and physically remove them. I saw it, the older guys wanted to be on the front lines, but the young guys made them wait in the back on the porch! The older folks got to talk to Ariyoshi privately, and he actually had to say, “OK, I’ll buy the place.” It was getting to that level.
Tell me about the walk he and Barry Nakamura did.
Oh that must’ve been in the early ‘80s. John, Barry and I did a little bit of it, I think, because I have pictures. They wanted to know if there was anything from the airport to Diamond head that hadn’t been touched by man, by human hands, so they took a walk. Barry is a photographer as well. So they ended up seeing all of this fill that had been done around Sand Island by one of the subsidiaries of Dillingham dredging.
Apparently for years they were just dumping the fill that was extra from dredging in the back of the lot – that along with broken equipment that was rusting back there. So they were essentially building their own land by dumping into the water, filling the lagoon by their property. John went to RM Powell, the aerial photography company, to get shots of what was going on. RM Powell does overhead aerial shots all over, and they were going to charge, but John found their stock stuff. They had old and new photos showing what Hawaiian Bittingtons had been doing.
This made headline news for a bit. Dillingham got fined for it quite a bit too. For years, SOS was a thorn in the side of big development, big business. I heard a rumor where Dillingham executives put SOS in their annual budget as a PR thing.
What was his legacy?
Make no mistake, John was not a fan of capitalism. I would go to the Wednesday night meetings, usually at Kaimuki library, but the “theory” meetings were on Sundays. SOS, out of all those groups, was probably the most active. Everything from ethnic studies on campus to Waiahole / Waikane. The apathy nowadays? He wouldn’t like that.
Author Sonny Ganaden documents more of John Kelly Jr.’s life and work with Save Our Surf in the Summer 2010 issue of FLUX Hawaii. To purchase the back issue click here.